Lucky Strike - Cecil Porter

Published: 14 August, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 215, August, 2012

Asked to describe himself in one word, California-based artist, Cecil Porter, chooses ‘lucky’ without skipping a beat. Tracing hundreds of comics in his youth didn’t hurt his career either. A talented, yet humble tattooer and art nerd, you know he’s got to be something special.

“I’d have to say it was a result of my dad’s death,” says Porter of how he first became interested in art. “See, when he died my mother moved us up to where her side of the family lived, and of course this meant a new school and no friends. Now, when my dad was alive, I was only interested in sports, so when we moved I tried to go out for the football team, but I just didn’t fit in there, so I quit.

“There was this group of kids that would put up with me hanging around them and they would be drawing all the time, so in order to further fit in, I started to do the same. I had never really done any art before and I don’t remember what the first piece I had drawn was, but what I do remember was how I started… tracing. I would trace non-stop out of comics – I’ll tell you something, after you have traced an arm 100 times, guess what? You remember how to draw an arm without tracing.”

With his hopes set on attending art school as his hobby turned into his number one passion, Porter even had his college of choice picked out when unfortunately finances meant his scholastic dream never came to fruition. That’s when books began to fill the void and it seems they have never stopped, and remain a favorite destination of his for artistic knowledge to this day.

“The most beneficial to me was a book by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, great book,” he says. Slowly but surely he realised, as the smart ones do, that tattooing was a real and legitimate type of art, so he decided to widen his horizons, devoting everything he had to mastering the art of ink on skin.  

“I literally stopped doing everything that wasn’t tattoo-related. I only drew tattoo images, I stopped hanging out with friends, I would only tattoo and draw basically, but I don’t feel this was negative. I once read that to become good at something you need to put in 10,000 hours. I’m very impatient, so I just did what I felt I had to in order to chisel that down quickly!

“I remember some of the first ones, but I’m not exactly positive which came first, probably because they were all horrible experiences! Of course they all led to doubts, but I felt I was a good enough artist that I could be a decent tattooist if I could just learn the medium. Which it is. People don’t usually think of it like that, but tattooing is just another art medium; the fundamentals don’t change from one medium to the next, just the techniques you have to put forth to make the tools do what you want. I didn’t apprentice, though I wanted to. Once I got into a shop, I developed a relationship with the owner, that of a friend and mentor, and I pretty much owe everything to him. Without Rodney’s guidance and critiques, I would have had no direction.”

Learning from books, his mentor, and sheer determination, Cecil Porter has come a long way. He now owns his own private studio, which affords him the opportunity to strike the perfect balance between work and play and do everything by his own rules.

“I have no employees, I work at my pace on people I enjoy being around, I watch cartoons and read comics – it’s just like having a clubhouse, so it’s no stress at all,” he says, before admitting, “I don’t play well with others. I know, that sounds horrible doesn't it? But I work hard at what I do and thank God that I have what I have because of it.

“This isn’t a job. I’m blessed to wake up everyday and draw on people for a living. So when I work with assholes who bitch about how hard it is or how ‘over it’ they are, I get rubbed up the wrong way and I have no problem with expressing that. I can’t stand the attitude of ‘You’re lucky I’m willing to tattoo you, kiss my ass and tell me how great I am’. I mean, I’m lucky someone walks into my studio and lets me permanently mark their body because they feel my art is worth wearing for the rest of their lives. I still can’t get over it and I get paid to do it – this is great! So yeah, working alone just works for me.”

Although, admittedly, being isolated often acts as both a perk and downside…

“The biggest perk is I can be spoiled. I do what I want and there’s no one to tell me it’s wrong, that’s a pretty fun place to be, if you ask me. The biggest downside is being alone. Sometimes it is nice to be able to just look over and see another artist there to talk to and feed off of, you know?” But don’t expect Porter to have a new artist or apprentice roaming around his studio anytime soon, interesting customers are all he really needs. “I have no problem helping anyone who is willing to listen. I’ll answer any intelligent questions anyone has, I think it’s rude not to, but as far as having an apprentice, nah, too much hassle. The only way I’ll do it is when I’m ready to stop tattooing I may find a kid, teach him what I can, give him my clientele and walk away. Then I don’t contribute to the overpopulation of the industry that’s so prevalent nowadays.

“I’m very lucky that my work seems to invite like-minded individuals to me, so I enjoy the people, plus the majority of my clients fly in from other places, which is always good for conversation.”

Inspired by tattooists, fine artists and comic book artists alike, his work is a mix of inspirations smoothly blended together, resulting in a style that is Porter’s alone. But ingenuity can have its downsides, including separation anxiety every once in a while.

“What makes it hard for me is if I do a piece I personally love, I can’t keep it. If you paint a painting you can keep it, show it off, hang it in a museum, but my tattoo walks away and usually I don’t see it again, so that part sucks a bit.” A noticeable and unique approach to tattooing is also often cause for copycats, somewhat of a growing epidemic in the industry. Porter does his best to avoid and discourage imitations, but there is only so much an artist can do, so it happens.

“Oh yeah, all the time. This is why I rarely post custom work online. It’s never done well, so usually I laugh and shake my head, but to the client it’s a huge deal and they become pretty upset over it. I feel bad for them, but at least they can rest assured theirs is the best version.” But no matter how good his work, there is always one concern that reigns supreme, and that is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, skin. “Great skin is in short supply here in Southern California,” says Porter, proving that maybe starting tattoo-loving colonies in freezing, rainy climates isn’t such a bad idea.

Working on his own comic book in his spare time, comics are what Porter would turn to if this whole tattooing thing ever stops being cool. “And you sure as hell wouldn't have to force me to do it, either, just tease me with the opportunity.” But before that day comes, there’s only one thing Porter hopes to achieve in his career as a top-notch tattoo artist… “do a few good tattoos and have fun.”


On the road again

I work out of environments I’m used to and comfortable with. I have been very lucky to make friends, some of my best friends – like Gump and Jimmy – all around the world, and when I travel, that’s where I go. I’ve been to some of these places so much, Thou Art, for example, that they feel more like home than home to me. Convention-wise, I’m pretty much done with that, I only do the ones I feel are fun otherwise I don’t bother.

Thank you, thank you

I would like to ask you to let me say thanks to a few important people out there: Rodney Rose, thanks for being a great friend, I wouldn’t have what I have if it weren’t for you; Stevil, your support has been invaluable; the guys that keep me running smooth every day, Fusion Ink, the Dragonfly tattoo machine, and The Glove for the Artist; and, of course, my fiancé, Ashley, you were the piece I was missing.

Cecil Porter

24629 Washington Ave.


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Cecil Porter


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